Happy summer, everyone. Like you, I’m thankful for the down time—or at least the opportunity to do all the things I’ve been putting off—over the past few weeks. In that time, I’m pleased to have finally transcribed and condensed an interview from late May with Ross Wilson, the assistant superintendent largely in charge of the district’s professional development, principal support and the new performance evaluation system.
As you may already know or will soon read here, there are significant shifts in the way we do our professional work as educators on the horizon. A new district-wide performance evaluation system and associated professional development offerings will be in place. We will all, not just ELA and math teachers, carry the responsibility to modify and enhance our curricula and instructional strategies to embrace the Common Core state standards.
What are we as teachers to do with these shifts? Where can we continue or even begin to understand these changes? No matter what your level of familiarity is, I hope this interview serves to move us all along.
Background to Ross and the Office of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness.
Who are you, Ross? What is your current position and what are your responsibilities in the Boston Public Schools?
Currently, my title is Assistant Superintendent of Teacher and Leadership Effectiveness. We’ve been messing around with the idea of saying Educator Effectiveness. We like to use the word ‘educator’ because it’s all encompassing of everybody in our organization and we’re all learners. We all contribute to student learning in different ways, and I feel we all have a lot of the same desires and goals.
My job is essentially is composed of three major buckets of work. One is working with the Office of Teacher Development and Advancement. We work really hard to think about supporting new teachers [and] quality professional development for all teachers. Another is around school leadership where we work hard to think about better ways to support school leaders, principal induction support and mentoring. Lastly, our work is around performance evaluation. So that’s looking at the new performance regulations and implementing them responsibly. You can see this alignment between these three major buckets of work. There’s [the process of] induction and support of both teachers and school leaders, thinking of professional development and then performance evaluation; these things are all symbiotic. They come together really well.
Can you describe your path to this current position?
I started my career in Shrewsbury, MA as a special education teacher for 1st and 2nd grade students. I then became a reading and curriculum specialist at that school before becoming a kindergarten and first grade teacher in BPS. I also trained at Lesley University as a literacy coordinator as part of the Literacy Collaborative at that time so I served as their coach as well. Then I become an assistant principal and a special coordinator at an elementary school on the North Shore. I later returned to BPS as a principal fellow, did my internship for a year with Gloria Rose at the Mattahunt School and after that, was principal at the Haley Elementary. I had the pilot school for five years and now I’m in this current position.
Give a picture of what you were like as a teacher. From your perspective as a former teacher, would you say the ‘context’ of teaching has changed? If so, in what ways?
Pretty much the same way I am now (laughing). We did a lot of center work, a lot of work around storytelling and project-based learning. One of my beliefs is engagement of students and connections across curriculum. Through project based learning, students are engaged in learning across the curriculum.
When I was first a teacher, we just started with the context of MCAS testing and high stakes testing. There was a lot of debate at that time about it. And I think we’ve gotten past that in terms of teaching to standards and the importance of standards-based instruction.
I also hear when we talk about context a lot about curriculum programs. Sometimes we talk a lot about this notion of ‘we have this new curriculum.’ I am a strong believer [instead], of asking ‘what is your belief around student learning and around teaching.’ I’ve used this concept as a teacher and school leader to thinking about the instructional framework you believe in. And when you’re designing lessons or units of study for students, we have in mind about how we’re extending or applying different types of knowledge in different ways. That’s where we see great results with great engagement and learning from students.
Lastly, I think moving from programs, like an inclusion program from a substantially separate program to being more inclusive in nature does say that every student belongs to every one of us and we all have to share responsibility for student success. And I do believe that has changed. In some schools in Boston we had substantially separate classes and we still do, and we have advanced work classes, and we have different ways of having children go to different programs. And I think our focus now on inclusive practices in Boston, we think much more intentionally about how to support all students in a community of educators in a school that own every student in that building, not just the ones that are assigned to their classroom. So I think that has changed.
What ‘subheading’ of your professional life would you say most strongly influences the way you approach your particular job and responsibilities now? You’re a parent, you were a teacher, an assistant principal, coach, principal and now an assistant superintendent; if you had to choose just one, which would it be?
A parent. You know I used to believe before children, I thought I had all this education and what not and you didn’t need to be a parent to be a great teacher. I still actually believe that. But the wisdom and perspective that you gain from being a parent is significant. I live in Boston and I have three children one of whom is on a waiting list to get into K-1, a two year old and a seven month old. And they’ll all be going to be the Boston Public Schools. So everything I do, I think about them. What teacher would I want for my children?. I think all the time about what kind of school culture that they would flourish in… and quite honestly? My children are very different from each other. They each have different needs. I expect that they will need a really good teacher with strong instructional strategies to engage them.
So I view my job in the Office of Educator Effectiveness as how to support teachers meet the needs of all students.
That makes sense to me and I’m glad to hear you say that, as a teacher.
But that doesn’t really seem to get at the administrative role that you have in terms of creating and managing systems. So do you feel that translates? How does that help you create systems?
I think we learn more from having individual conversations and going to schools and talking to educators and getting their feedback than staying in this room and thinking about what systems to create. I think whenever we think about what our policies are around performance evaluation and professional development, those are all coming from conversations with educators in Boston. Not from ‘a book’ or thinking of a systems approach to this. But what do we believe educators in Boston are asking for and how do we make sure we’re engaging them in a process that feels fair to them and helps them with professional growth.
There’s a human side to this work. In fact, I believe that at least 90% of this work is about relationships we have with the children [and the ability to] problem solve and work together. That’s the way I approach it. I don’t approach it from this disconnected way.
Do you feel most of your colleagues at your administrative level within BPS feel the same way? And do you feel that teachers by and large, whom you’ve talked to in the schools you’ve visited, respond to you in that way?
The people that we work with as an academic team and operations team, absolutely. They are incredibly dedicated people, they are people that value input from all educators across our school system and do this job to serve educators in our school system and they work tirelessly to do so. I’ve gained great admiration for the people I work with at Court St.
When I was a teacher or principal, you don’t always see Court St in the same light but when you’re here as part of the team? I’m amazed at the people I work with and the dedication they show every day.
As for teachers, I wouldn’t expect them [to believe this stated orientation] right off the bat. I’m the guy at this point talking a lot about evaluation stuff. I’m not expecting that people are saying right off the bat that I trust you and believe you. I think that’s earned over time. But I think we remain committed and consistent with our message, our approach to this and we want to treat educators fairly in this process. I think trust is gained and earned; it’s not granted. Now that being said, there are I think the large majority of educators in school we’ve felt really welcomed at and honestly, quite impressed by these school cultures. We’ve been to over sixty schools with all the educators for a couple of hours and we leave every time learning a ton and feel privileged to have entered into those schools.
Defining Leadership and Teacher Effectiveness.
How do you define teacher and leadership effectiveness? What does that look like in your opinion?
That’s a big question. I think the first step is to consider how to define teacher effectiveness. In my mind, it’s a conversation that we’re having together as a school district at this time. The state has come out with four new standards for performance evaluation along with indicators and elements that are in a rubric. I think this is a really important time where we need to engage as a district and consider what we think effective teaching involves in Boston.
When you say ‘we’, you mean…
As a school district. So when we go to schools, we as a team go to schools, we talk to the teachers about this rubric and we talk to teachers about the importance of unpacking the rubric and making sense of the behaviors that you would see in classrooms, the evidence that you would collect, based on different rating categories.
For instance, if you’re looking at ‘Proficient’ in this standard in this indicator in this element, this is what it says but what does that mean for us in Boston? And we ask teachers to think about what this means for them at their school as well. And we want those conversations happening in every school where school communities are engaged in conversation about what does this mean for us at the Carter school, the Everett or TechBoston. Because we want a common language across our system, we believe the standards in the rubric allow that common conversation, but we also are very clear that different school communities have different contexts and sometimes serve different populations of students. Or they may have different themes as schools. So as a school community, they should further unpack and define what it means there. It’s not to say that we don’t want to have a district definition. We absolutely want to have a district starting point and common language, but we also want to be clear about different roles and responsibilities at schools and what it means for schools that serve different populations.
So you feel it’s almost like meeting in the middle. So the district has a common language and expectation but it doesn’t really live without people engaging with it at the individual school level with the particular students that they serve and the communities that they are in.
It would be unfair of us for us to tell you what effective teaching is at your school.
What if you think it wasn’t good enough?
We would push back on it.
So, it’s interesting. We’re going out to schools and talking to teachers about the regulations. We want every educator to understand what’s happening so they have a good sense of what’s coming in September because we have no choice regardless of negotiations. We must implement the regulations. And, we are engaging with school leaders in training, and teachers, at different levels. And so all these things need to come together in order to define what this whole system is. So to get back to your point of how do we push back if we think we’re not meeting the standard at a school, we work with school leaders and teachers to be clear about what is this means and what does this looks like.
We’ve been talking with a lot of partners to talk about how we do work around calibration, how do we do work around clearly exemplifying what the standard of teaching is in Boston. And that could be exemplified through videos, artifacts of lesson plans or through family and community engagement. We envision eventually having a rubric that will be a living document where you can look at proficiency at one element and click on a hyperlink that would bring you to evidence that would show you what that could look like…so we could have a common view of what we think effective teaching is or what effective community and family engagement looks like in Boston.
Can you talk a little bit about the leadership effectiveness part of it? The principal induction?
Sure. So the leadership effectiveness work has, and will continually be focused, on developing a knowledge base in our school leaders around some of our upcoming initiatives. There are a number of exciting things that are happening across our school system and across our state and nation such as the Common Core standards, the better use of data to inform the instruction of students, and work around professional development and performance evaluation. And that includes creating school cultures that can handle all of these things coming to us.
Would you feel from your estimation Ross in terms of your collective energies that you’ve equally developed the idea of teacher professional development and accountability and school leadership professional development and accountability?
The same way that we’re focusing on the rubric for teachers is the same that we’re doing with principals and thinking about what are these new four standards and what they mean for us, what are the shifts that occur and how do we unpack them. It’s a fascinating experience where there is a clear alignment between teachers, assistant principals and principals and superintendents. Where the standards are aligned and they’re all intertwined. So principals are going to be rated and evaluated and supported on how well they support teachers on their indicators and their work. So because of this intertwining and because the process is the same for every educator in the system, it allows the same conversation to be occurring throughout the system. The same work that we’ve been doing with school and orienting teachers is the same that we’re doing with principals. It’s really a common ground for all of us.
I know as a Race to the Top district, BPS has received federal funds to help ‘make this happen.’ What positions, structures or common understandings are needed to create meaningful opportunities for teacher and administrative leadership?
This work that we’re doing is supported by RttT. We’re building an online system now for all performance management and the performance evaluation work, to be online. That includes self assessment, goal setting, and evidence collection by both the evaluator and educator to be loaded into a system. And eventually, there will be links to professional development. We now have the opportunity to have this historical look at people to make sure that people are receiving the appropriate observations and all the elements of performance evaluation.
We’re developing this ourselves so we own the system. So after RttT money is gone, this system will remain in place and will continue to serve us for years to come. So we feel really good about that investment and we feel that RttT has given us the ability to create an infrastructure that will support us. That’s what RttT is designed to do—to develop systems and structures to help support your school district and to have some position to get the heavy lift, the work along the way, but the theory is you won’t need those once systems are in place.
New Performance Evaluation System.
Let’s talk about the new performance evaluation system that you are largely in charge of ushering in. From my understanding, all BPS schools will be implementing this new evaluation system in the fall of 2012.
We are right on the threshold of half the schools for presentations.
After doing so many presentations at schools, what do you think is most important for teachers to know about the new system?
What’s important to understand is that the role of the educator is much more active in this performance evaluation system than in the past. It’s active through the self assessment process, the goal setting process and the collection of evidence for themselves on the four standards. That’s not been in place in the past; it’s very intentional that there’s much more focus on the educator’s voice in the process.
Two, it’s the multiple sources of data to make an overall decision on a teacher’s overall performance. You’re thinking about the four standards but you’re also thinking about the goals and the process towards reaching them and eventually, we’ll have ratings on multiple measures and student feedback. So all of them come together to give an overall rating.
We’ve learned that it’s really important to have multiple sources of evidence to make a rating on a teacher and it’s important to have multiple visits to the classroom in order to inform an overall rating. And it’s important to collect evidence not just through observation, but through other artifacts such as lesson plans or engagement with families, that help you understand a teacher’s overall performance and eventually to connect that to professional needs.
Another piece that’s different is this notion of cycles. In the new performance evaluation system, everyone’s on the same cycle. The duration of these plans are different. It’s important to understand that the cycles are the same but the duration of the cycles are different. And I think people need to be informed about what that means and what support they’ll get on these different plans.
What I think is really similar is the alignment of the Dimensions of Effective Teaching and the four standards. Everything in the Dimensions fits in the four standards. And what’s different is the rubric allows us to be more clear about what we mean by it and what it actually looks like. The same thing for school administrators.
Are you doing work with associating the Common Core with teacher evaluation? I know that’s a big emphasis with RttT and I haven’t heard much about it happening in our school system.
A number of key standards and elements are aligned to the shifts with the Common Core state standards. We just last week did some work with our Curriculum and Instruction departments; we all looked at the rubrics and identified some elements that strongly aligned to the shifts and we began to do some work around some sample goals that teachers might think about in terms of a menu of goals, depending on content level and grade level, of a shift connected to the Common Core.
We’ve spent some time unpacking the rubric in this way and asking ourselves what might that look like in the classroom? And what would the principal’s work be in supporting this work?
It’s been a really great experience and great alignment between two major initiatives that sometimes feel separate but are very much aligned to each other. The intentional focus of using the rubric as an instructional frame and showing where the rubric reflects the other instructional priorities of the district allows us to understand how they’re all working together.
I think the notion that the Common Core will just be implemented is a false notion. I believe that we will phase it in and learn about it together. In fact, we’ve been learning with ourselves around this, particularly around literacy and the three different shifts there, with text complexity, non-fiction texts and close reading of text with text dependent questions. What we’ve been learning is that it’s a shift of mindset around our standards and the instructional strategies we use. They’re not going to be magically developed overnight but will be developed over time. I do think we can use the rubric to help leverage that work.
What are your greatest hopes for the new evaluation system?
I think it’s the educators feeling that they’ve gotten good, strong feedback from their evaluator but also from their reflective practice in this process. That they feel like it’s valuable, that they’ve learned something and that they feel supported.
I’m with you on that… do you feel that needs to be measured? Or how will that be measured?
This goes back to the question of how do you measure effective professional development. It’s a really hard question. And I think as a country and different district, we struggle with how do we measure the effectiveness of professional development. So I don’t have a clear answer for it. But I do think we need to ask people how they’re experiencing the system. I do think we need to look at some measures that say are we seeing improvement in students’ performance. Because ultimately, we can do a lot with adults but if we’re not seeing improved student performance, then it’s all for naught. Ultimately, we need to see a closing of achievement gaps, which in my mind is the most important thing to see.
What is the greatest challenge to the success of the new evaluation system in BPS?
I think people have experienced performance evaluation as sometimes not being a growth process or valuable to them. So I think we’re building on a system that some people may not feel worked well for them. And I think if we enter this and thinking about performance evaluation as just a technical solution to a better evaluation, then we’ve missed an opportunity. I think if we’re thinking about performance evaluation as a way to organize our academic work together and aligning professional development and insuring that we’ve improved our professional development, I think we’ll be successful.
There’s a mentality that’s really common in the public, but also in the education community, where it’s all about sifting. ‘Let’s get the good teachers here and let’s get rid of the bad teachers.’ It’s simplistic and represents a very imprecise understanding of what the work of teaching is about. In some ways, that’s a big fear with the new evaluation system as well, where people think based on data points I don’t fully understand or aren’t fully developed, or I may be teaching a subject that’s not oriented to a specific test, I don’t particularly trust my principal or this person is new and doesn’t understand our school culture and my fate is in the hands of an individual that may be brand new.
Do you think teachers are right to be wary or in some cases, skeptical of the changes and how the new evaluation system is being messaged? What are you doing to invite deeper understanding, ownership and feedback from teachers on an ongoing basis?
Let me speak about a challenge. One of the challenges about the performance evaluation is that it’s been part of negotiations for this whole time period. And so talking with teachers has been a challenge around some of the details of this work because it could be considered direct dealing. We haven’t reached an agreement on performance evaluation—despite the fact that I would personally say we agree, the union and the district, on by and large the majority of this work. And it’s unfortunate that we can’t reach an agreement yesterday so we can truly engage all educators and being very clear about what’s happening and we can do it together, collaborate together. What I’m concerned about mostly is this notion that this is all going to change because it’s all part of negotiations and something significant will be different.
As long as we continue to believe that, it’s hard to engage in serious conversation that this is actually happening. One of my frustrations is that we have a lot of mutual interests with the Boston Teachers Union on this topic, we have a lot of agreement on this topic, and I wish that this wasn’t part of the mediation process because the Boston Teachers Union has been clear about the mediation process taking quite a long time. In one of the bulletins, something to the degree of one to two years. We can’t wait for that. We can’t wait to have some serious conversations with teachers about this work for a year or two. So it’s been a real impediment and real missed opportunity to engage with more teachers around this topic.
Any plans though, with those constraints, to still try and have meaningful conversations? To have teachers understand and own what this process is about?
So we’ve done a number of Superintendent shares on this topic, where the superintendent is there to hear from teachers about performance evaluation and what they think is going well or not well and their hopes and desires. We want to do large scale roll out of this work so we were hoping to host a number of sessions at the BTU where we drop in sessions where we can do some facilitated work groups around this topic, the rubric, understanding the rubric and the professional supports available. We still hope to do that. But it’s hard to formalize a clear plan when this is part of negotiations. We have a lot of ideas of what we’d like to do, such as online surveys and opportunities to get feedback from educators but we’ve not been able to do that.
A Focus on Collaboration.
Let’s talk about the idea of collaboration as a way of doing our work in the Boston Public Schools.
What is your understanding of what labor-management collaboration involves? What does it look like? What does it take to get there?
As I alluded to earlier, there’s this notion of interest based bargaining which essentially is this idea that we have common interest in this work. We work together with the teachers union to come up with solutions and problem solve the issues that we identify and reach some mutual agreement. I believe we’ve been successful with that. I feel like the Boston Teachers Union leadership cares about performance evaluation and we’ve engaged in good, strong dialogue about this topic. And I feel so good about what we did and what we accomplished that I thought we would have had something to give a clear message to all educators now. And that we wouldn’t have to go to mediation on this topic, so I’m surprised, quite frankly, that we are. I wish we could have continued that strong collaboration on this topic to reach the final determination to let everyone know that we’re working together.
So what does it look like? I believe it looks exactly like we did where we had a small group of committed educators from the union and district work together to talk about common interests and problems and work together to solve them and work together to come up with something beneficial for all of us—we are one organization, the Boston Public Schools. And I think we created something that would be beneficial for everyone in the Boston Public Schools.
Madison Park for instance… the work that was done by the educators at Madison Park to work together to think about how to make an innovation plan work well at their school is a great example—of working together, problem solving and having strong voices of educators at a school to serve students well. I believe there are multiple examples of that across our system that are outside of contract negotiations where we work together to solve problems together. I think we should do more of that.
We’re going to move forward with this exciting work, we’re going to do so in a responsible way and roll forward with this work with a strong a knowledge and consideration of what the Boston Teachers Union has as its interest. We’re not going to ignore those interests. I want to dispel that. We left in a good faith bargaining effort to come to an agreement on performance evaluation and we’re not going to ignore it. And we’ll continue to honor it, even if the BTU doesn’t want to honor it with us.
In your mind and your position, do you equate the Boston Teachers Union with Boston teachers? Is that something you believe or is it an administrative or managerial approach?
My honest answer is I think about the Boston Teachers Union as a place in South Bay, the location I go to. I view the Boston Teachers Union as the leadership of the Boston Teachers Union, the people at that building. I view the membership of the Boston Teachers Union as all the educators, all the teachers in Boston. But when I go out to a school to talk to teachers, I don’t believe I’m talking to the BTU; I believe I’m talking to teachers and I’m talking to the school community that I’m in.
Any words you’d like to end with?
Let me say this. We’re excited about this work. We feel like this is a real exciting opportunity for us to learn and to learn together and to come up with a clarity, a sense of community, a sense of teamwork as we work together on this performance evaluation work and alignment of professional development and how it looks at supporting school leaders and teachers and induction support. We see this great alignment and synergy and we’re real excited about it. And we feel great about the upcoming year. It’s going to be exciting. We think some glitches will pop up but we’re here to solve them and we’re dedicated to doing that.
So I thank you for the time on this. We like to talk to people about this work and we think it’s important. We may not always say the right or perfect things, but we’re honest. We want to have conversations, we want to be transparent and we’re dedicated to supporting all educators in Boston.
What do you think? Do you think Ross gets it right? What can we do to bring together our collective energies and will to do make these professional shifts our own? As usual, visit the online forum at www.theteachingpulse.org to join the conversation. And here’s to a final restorative few weeks of summer!
James Liou is a Peer Assistant in the Boston Public Schools.